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The job of a police officer is unique in society, with officers routinely placing themselves in dangerous and stressful situations to keep the public safe. It’s also a role to which certain powers are entrusted, of arrest and control of the public, given to a police officer by sworn oath and warrant. As the holder of an office, rather than an employee, each police officer has personal liability for their action or inaction.

With these proud responsibilities comes a requirement for high standards in professional and personal lives. So it’s critical that when a member of the public considers that the conduct of a police officer or staff members has been unsatisfactory of improper, that they are taken seriously within a complaints system that is rigorous and commands the confidence of both the public and those working in the service.

Last year, police forces recorded 58,399 complaints by members of the public.1 It’s important to understand what lies behind that figure. Police officers and staff have thousands of interactions with the public each day – over the course of one year 40% of adults will have some form of encounter with the police service.2 Looked at in those terms, the figures seem low, particularly when the Financial Services Authority reports there were nearly 10,000 complaints a day about financial institutions in the last six months of 2010. Tempting though comparisons may be, however, they’re not in fact very helpful. A key difference in policing is that we don’t really want the numbers of complaints to fall. The value of that information is that is helps us improve our service to the public, so we want people to give their views.

Something of concern is that almost half of complaints made about police officers and staff in the last year related to incivility, being rude or lateness. That suggests the Home Secretary is right to say that most of the time people want a simple apology – not necessarily a lengthy form to fill in. We need supervisors to take responsibility in these cases by dealing with them swiftly and sensibly.

At the higher end of the scale, if alleged conduct is so serious that dismissal from the force would be justified, then it is investigated as ‘gross misconduct’, and a disciplinary panel can dismiss without notice if the case is proven. The Times recently questioned why many misconduct hearings are held behind closed doors but in fact, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which has oversight of the whole police complaints system, has the power to direct a hearing be in public where it is in the public interest.

Looking at other professions, as a general rule the only discipline hearings conducted in public for teachers, doctors, nurses or lawyers are those which involve serious breaches of codes of conduct and therefore involve their professional bodies, the General Teaching Council, General Medical Council, Nurses and Midwives Council or Law Society. Even then either party can apply to have a hearing in private, while the majority of hearings are conducted by the direct employer and are always held in private.

To return to my first point, with the responsibilities entrusted to it, the role of a police officer is different, so the IPCC has a role to play in exercising its judgement proportionately. There is a subtle difference between something being in the public interest, and something else being of interest to the public. It’s also worth noting that in all police misconduct proceedings the complainant or interested person has the absolute right to attend.

Measuring consistency in the way complaints are dealt with across forces is problematic, especially while the Home Office and police leadership are pushing for common sense solutions at a local level. The bottom line is that when circumstances and priorities in each force are different, each and every case must be looked at individually. But the public can be reassured that we do not tolerate serious misconduct and that those who fail to adhere to our high standards will be dismissed.

My final point is that the police service needs to be careful to avoid a defensive mindset. Everyone in policing needs to be focussed on driving up our service to the public and to do that we need their input, of which complaints are an important part.

John Feavyour is ACPO lead for complaints and misconduct and Deputy Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Police.

Notes

1. The Independent Police Complaints Commission Report: Police Complaint Statistics for England and Wales, 2009/2010.
2. Nicholas, S., Flatley, J., Hoare, J., Patterson, A., Southcott, C., Moley, S. and Jansson, K. (2008) Circumstances of crime, neighbourhood watch membership and perceptions of policing: findings from the 2006/07 British Crime Survey. Home Office Statistical Bulletin 06/08. London: Home Office.